We begin with an elephant.
California, 1926. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) needs to get an elephant from the middle of nowhere to a Hollywood party (That’s not some sort of weird metaphor. I mean an actual elephant). Turns out, trying to tow a full-sized elephant up a hill via truck is even more difficult than it sounds – particularly when said elephant has to take a massive dump.
A few buckets of elephant poop later, we arrive, party in full swing. “Babylon,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, begins with a roughly 30-minute (maybe 15-minute, maybe an hour, it all gets lost in a blur) party sequence that’s somehow so disorienting you forget about the literal elephant in the room. The camera whirls through raucous debauchery at breakneck speed. Drums pound and horns blare from Justin Hurwitz’s driving score as people drink, dance, and screw their way to oblivion. Chazelle peppers the action with references to Hollywood icons – Fatty Arbuckle, Marlene Dietrich, and I’m sure dozens of others I somehow missed in the glitter-infused haze.
We meet Manny, a young, talented assistant trying to work his way up the Hollywood ladder. We meet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring starlet-to-be who literally crashes her way into Manny’s life. The two bond over their desire to be part of something bigger as they take turns ripping lines of cocaine, unaware that by the time the sun rises, their lives will be irrevocably changed. When the original actress for a small movie role overdoses during the festivities, Nellie is chosen to replace her, and Manny is tasked with taking passed out big shot actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) home, landing himself a permanent position. Stardom awaits them, but so does arguably the biggest shift in Hollywood history.
“La La Land,” Chazelle’s last film about Hollywood, sits more comfortably in the “love letter to cinema” genre that some might try to shoehorn “Babylon” into before ever sitting down in a theater. But a simple ode to the movies “Babylon” is not – it feels more like a desperate scream into the abyss of an ever-changing industry.
The film begins just a year before “The Jazz Singer” premiered, ending the last hurrah of Hollywood’s silent era and thrusting the industry into sound. If this story sounds familiar, you might have seen it portrayed in 1952’s “Singing’ in the Rain” – perhaps the best of the “love letter to cinema” canon. But while “Babylon” certainly shares DNA and pays homage to the musical masterpiece, it is not a clever, winking take on the industry that rests on the charm of Gene Kelly’s beaming smile and tapping feet.
Instead, “Babylon” provides a much darker take on Hollywood’s transition from silence to sound, and feels like the product of an artist scared he won’t get a chance like this ever again. Chazelle throws everything at the wall, using the story of this transition to examine anxieties about the state of Hollywood today, yesterday, and tomorrow. It’s an opus – an indulgent, messy, ambitious opus. And I loved every second of it.
While most of these characters are invented, they are based at least in part on real people. The character of Nellie LaRoy is probably most comparable to Clara Bow – the “It Girl” of the silent era – but has aspects of Jeanne Eagles, Alma Rubens, and even Joan Crawford. Jack Conrad is heavily based on John Gilbert, a huge silent film star who never successfully made the transition to sound pictures. “Singin’ in the Rain” famously riffs on Gilbert’s performance in a 1929 film called “His Glorious Night,” in which Gilbert ardently says, “I love you,” over and over again to his leading lady. Gene Kelly’s character does the same in the disastrous “The Dueling Cavalier” in “Singin’ in the Rain,” and Jack Conrad does it yet again in one of his first sound films in “Babylon.” It wasn’t necessarily the quality of Gilbert’s speaking voice, but a host of factors – including an allegedly less than cordial relationship with Louis B. Mayer – that did him in, and many of those are infused in Jack Conrad’s arc.
Unlike Gilbert, Bow was able to find success in the sound era. However, she reportedly found the new medium and its technology stiff and limiting, something Chazelle captures exquisitely. On Nellie and Manny’s first day on a silent film set, the action is shot in the same chaotic manner as the party. The film sets are all outside, sprawling over acres of land, the cast and crew slaves to natural light. The countdown to sundown adds a manic energy to the artistic process. The film cuts between Manny, running himself ragged trying to find replacement camera equipment on short notice; Nellie, talent beginning to blossom as she contemplates the perfect number of tears she should let fall from her eye; then Jack, drinking himself into a coma before somehow delivering his final scene with the gravitas expected of a matinee idol. Everyone is running on adrenaline, thriving on the high of being allowed on a movie in the first place. Someone may have literally died while filming a battle sequence, but who cares? They’re creating something exciting.
In contrast, the giddy lawlessness of creativity has no place on a soundstage. The first day of filming a talkie is a horror show, the tension ratcheted to the max as the cast and crew wait for Murphy’s Law to take effect. The room is eerily silent, the harsh buzzing of lights the only thing that fills our ears. Sweat drips down Nellie’s face as she waits for her cue, and we follow tightly behind her or cut to her feet as she slowly tiptoes to her mark. The entire shot sits on pins and needles, until inevitably someone stops the scene and all hell breaks loose. The magic of cinema is gone, this new technology ushering in a perilous quality that threatens everything these people hold dear. Someone also dies during this shoot, but this time the loss hangs heavy. Who could justify dying for this?
“Singin’ in the Rain” also pokes at the technical learning curve the talkies wrought, from elocution classes, to trouble with microphones, to awkward, heavy-handed scripts. The link between the two films is unmistakable, and the end of “Babylon” solidifies their connection. But while “Singin’ in the Rain” calls us to chuckle at the Lina Lamonts of the world, to laugh at their inability to transition into a new era of Hollywood, “Babylon” is far more concerned, yet equally enraptured with how easily Hollywood warps and tears down the stars of it own creation. Nellie falls prey to drugs and gambling, Jack continues to drink and is too old and proud to make the switch, and Manny loses his soul to the business. In a harrowing sequence, Manny – now a big shot himself – asks Black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) to wear Black face to make his skin appear the same color on camera as the other musicians in the shot. The camera stays staunchly on Sidney’s face and the pain in his eyes as he plays, forcing you to linger on this physical representation of rock bottom and rot that “Singin’ in the Rain” isn’t quite as interested in.
In “Babylon,” there are no happy endings in Hollywood until you die and your legacy kicks in. There’s a little of Lina Lamonte in everyone, taking their moment in the spotlight until they’re shoved off the platform, resigned to being nothing but an impression on a film reel. The film industry is always dealing with the ramifications of technical or social shifts, whether it be sound, the dissolution of the studio system, the rise of superhero entertainment, or the rise of streaming. The strength and magic of “Babylon” rests on Chazelle’s awareness of the fact that the Hollywood of today, and the Hollywood of any day, is just as capable of chewing someone up and spitting them out as they were then. But it also rests on its fundamental understanding of the magic that forever keeps people drawn to the movie industry, and what keeps them coming back no matter what.
I won’t spoil it here, but Chazelle chooses to end his opus on a sense of acid-tripped wonderment that’s as bittersweet as it is exalting. “Babylon” is overstuffed, over-the-top funny at times, monstrous at others, and as in love with the industry as it is critical. And isn’t that the perfect Hollywood metaphor?